Iron Man (Paramount Pictures) may be the first movie about the conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan to become a box-office blockbuster. But if it does, it won’t be because of its Afghan bad guys or somewhat incoherent musings on the immorality of the military-industrial complex. Iron Man’s secret weapon dwells underneath the high-tech robot suit and the whiz-bang special effects: We can win the war on terror, the movie suggests, with the force of Robert Downey Jr.’s personality alone.
Downey plays Tony Stark—a billionaire playboy industrialist who turns himself into a superhero through pure technical ingenuity—as the Oscar Wilde of superheros, a dissipated roué who seems weary of his own charisma. Everything we know about the actor’s own checkered back story—the countless drug relapses, the stints in jail and rehab, the mysterious ability to hold onto Hollywood’s good will through it all—informs our first encounter with Tony, clutching a Scotch on the rocks in the back of an armored Humvee as he’s shuttled to a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan. After showing off his latest ultrasophisticated missile, the Jericho, at a U.S. Army base, he’s kidnapped by an insurgent group who torture him till he agrees to build them a Jericho of their own. Of course, equipping your genius prisoner with the means to build a superweapon is a plan with a built-in flaw. Instead, Tony forges a primitive prototype of the Iron Man suit and blasts his way to freedom.
Back at his zillion-dollar compound in Malibu, Tony holds a surprise press conference to announce that Stark Industries will henceforth cease all weapons manufacturing and devote itself to vaguely defined technological do-gooding. Tony’s newfound morality doesn’t sit too well with his business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who has been secretly dealing arms to some dubious types, including Tony’s kidnapper Raza (Faran Tahir). Unaware of Stane’s treachery, Tony withdraws to his way-cool underground workshop and begins to design the ultimate supersuit, crafted not of iron this time but of gold and red-plated titanium.
This middle section, in which the newly energized Tony tinkers with his emerging superpowers like a kid in shop class, is the movie’s finest and funnest hour. But when he starts to actually use those powers, zooming to random corners of Afghanistan to save cowering villagers from evil warlords, the movie’s sharp intelligence gives way to a dopey wish-fulfillment fantasy. This is what we’d like our wars to be: a clearly defined moral crusade against a bald, glowering meanie who proclaims his Genghis Khan-like ambition to “dominate all of Asia.” (With an eye on potential box-office buzz kill, the movie cannily stays away from the mere mention of the Taliban, the war in Iraq, or domestic terrorism.) Tony’s invulnerable, omnipotent, impossibly expensive armor is an almost touching overcompensation for the moment of extreme vulnerability in which our country finds itself.
The movie’s central conflict, which is also Stark’s internal one, has to do with the ambiguity inherent in waging war. Once he’s devoted his life to the creation of ever-more-sophisticated killing machines, how’s a billionaire industrialist-turned-superhero to know who’s on whose side, whom to arm and whom to disarm, whom to kill and whom to save? Like those ‘50s monster movies that played out cultural fears of the atomic bomb, Iron Man explores these questions and disavows them at the same time. In one scene, the Iron Man confronts a group of Afghan villagers, unable to distinguish the civilians from the combatants. At once a Terminator-style readout appears on the inside of his mask, clearly labeling each civilian, and with surgical precision, he takes out all the bad guys, leaving the grateful good guys standing. It’s a clever and viscerally satisfying gag that got a round of applause at the screening I attended—but it left me with a bitter aftertaste that lasted for the rest of the movie. How much collateral damage have we inflicted by trusting just such “smart” weapons to make moral decisions for their users?
Iron Man doesn’t want you to dwell on such things for too long, and Jon Favreau’s crisp, bouncy direction makes it easy to avoid doing so. Besides Downey’s soulful, mercurial, performance, there’s Gwyneth Paltrow as his faithful girl Friday, Pepper Potts—not the most inspiring of feminist role models, but Paltrow plays it straight and smart, and looks sensational in red hair and little black dresses. Jeff Bridges is weirdly but perfectly cast as Obadiah Stane: Laconic and affable to the end, he’s The Dude gone over to the dark side. Terrence Howard gets a dull Dudley Do-Right part as Tony’s Army liaison, but one scene makes it clear that he’s looking forward to suiting up in future installments.
Like Tony Stark, Iron Man the movie has a maddening way of hiding its light (Downey) under a bushel—actually bushels and bushels—of special effects. During the action sequences (especially the disappointing final one, a face-off between Stark’s Iron Man and Stane’s Iron Monger), this movie could be any expensive summer blockbuster, with exploding tanks and bisected city buses and faceless mega-robots duking it out on rooftops. But when it’s idling in neutral, and we’re watching Stark putter in his workshop or seduce unsuspecting journalists, Iron Man abounds in that rarest of superpowers: charm.